The 100 Most Necessary Documentaries to Stream on Netflix This April

Wilder Films

Rather than update our original list of the 100 Best Documentaries on Netflix whenever a film expires or is added, we’d like to post a new version each month to keep things tidy and less confusing. And to make it even nicer for all of you, we’re going to note everything that has joined or left the guide.

This month, I’m excited to be adding my current favorite documentary of 2015 to the Netflix 100. Amanda Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant, about a recently set up free school in New Jersey, is a new classic that fits well with the very top titles on the list below, as it has the feel of something made 50 years ago by the masters of nonfiction cinema — not that Netflix has much from that time, but Wilder is a filmmaker I’m already holding in high regard alongside her greatest living peers.

I’m also adding three other favorites from the past year, each of them new to Netflix Watch Instantly: the deep and gorgeously shot Rich Hill, which is also focused on children, the remarkably fresh autobiographical film Evolution of a Criminal and the socially important Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story. All are, at least for now, essential viewing on the streaming service.

Unfortunately, they all must replace residents of the list, and it was a tough decision which ones I should remove, at least for now. I went with a few that I personally have not had a chance to watch in full yet, meaning I can’t honestly claim them to be top priorities right now, namely The Last of the Unjust, Return to Homs and What Now? Remind Me. For the fourth I’ve gone with Make Believe, because while it’s good I think those filmmakers are maturing so fast and I also have their Print the Legend on the list.

Now a reminder of how the titles are numerically arranged:

They are mostly ranked in order of my favor with some objective authority, but there are some clumps throughout the list that obviously fit together. Some are by director, some are by genre or subject matter and some are by series — the Up installments are of varied quality, for instance, but they should be seen in order. In fact, I see this whole list as being best watched in order of the rankings. There are a few double features in the bunch (Expedition to the End of the World and Encounters at the End of the World and The Act of Killing and Camp 14, for two example sets) and some grouping where I truly think the higher ranking title is best watched before a certain title or titles below it.

  1. “McElwee can do personal documentary in a way that doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Even though this is a film about him making a film while also trying to find a mate, it’s always about more than him. So many today try to do what Sherman’s March does and few seem to get what makes it so magical.” [Sight & Sound]
  1. “A revelation, a magnificent dance film shot in 3D in order to appropriately capture and pay homage to the work of the late Pina Bausch. Wenders and Bausch had originally planned to collaborate on a documentary based on some of her pieces before she suddenly died in 2009, and he nearly gave up in her absence. Fortunately he kept going and gave the world one of the best films, let alone best documentaries, of [2011].” [Documentary Channel Blog]
  1. “Something of a revelation in black and white, digital direct cinema. This isn’t the sort of politically minded essay film that we might expect, given the current crisis in the American education system. Wilder’s style has more in common with Frederick Wiseman‘s High School than it does Waiting for Superman. Its raw materials are conversation and expression rather than expert testimony or facts and figures. Wilder takes a great deal from the old playbook of Robert Drew and his associates, capturing a sequence of events with an eye on both local detail and the importance of character. Unlike Wiseman’s epic landscapes of entire institutions, she uses observational methods to shepherd the audience through a chronicle of increasingly unique events.” [Nonfics]
  1. “Now [the subjects from Seven Up are] 56, and understandably most (the number of which has dwindled surprisingly only slightly over the decades) are at a point where little is different compared to seven years earlier. At least personally. For some, the story has sort of moved on to how their kids and grandkids are doing, as their own course is rather static. One thing that is notable about 56 Up, therefore, is that it focuses more on how the world and England have changed over the course of 50 years. Rural areas are becoming urbanized, the East End of London is now filled with immigrants and the Olympic Park and, less locally, there’s the weakened economy.” [Film School Rejects]
  1. “About a war crime trial in the wake of the Sierra Leone civil war. Primarily focused on the case of Revolutionary United Front commander Issa Sesay, who led after Foday Sankoh’s arrest and ultimately disarmed the rebel army, Rebecca Richman Cohen’s film is very evenhanded, giving us as much time with Sesay’s legal team as with the prosecution. There is also a lot of focus on RUF spokesperson Eldred Collins, basically the chief propagandist for the party, none of it with the kind of judgmental perspective you might suspect a film like this to have. War Don Don is really just another great Rashomon-esque legal documentary, albeit one with global importance, and one that brings up a lot of the uncertainties leftover from the Nuremberg Trials concerning the scope of accountability in crimes against humanity.” [Cinematical/Moviefone]
  1. “The concept of an archival documentary can often suggest stale historical “objectivity,” a straightforward presentation of events unimpeded by the voice of the filmmaker. But Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn — an assemblage of occurrences before and after the Philadelphia Police Department set an activist group’s house aflame in 1985 — makes a case for the rich and affecting testimony that the archive alone can uniquely attest to. Meticulously constructing the film from news coverage, home videos, court testimonies and a passionate series of town council meetings, Osder presents a profound chronicle of the MOVE Organization that makes an intensely troubling historical moment feel like it’s unfolding right in front of you.” [Landon Palmer, Nonfics]
  1. “Small town America, to the extent that it even exists anymore, is not in good shape. Rich Hill, Missouri, is one of those troubled places, where the Fourth of July parade still marches strong but 19% of the population lives below the poverty line. Filmmakers Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos filmed three local teenage boys, all of them forced by circumstance to grow up much too fast. As each grows into his own, a multidimensional portrait of 21st century America emerges. In these young lives caught between the financial crisis, drug addiction, family and faith there is a sad but hopeful manifestation of the state of the union. [Nonfics]
  1. “There have been plenty films about and of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and Arab Spring overall, but director Jehane Noujaim offers the most compelling look at the events in Tahrir Square from the beginning through last summer. It is hardy an exhaustive work but it’s a striking chronicle as well as a complex character journey for a handful of individual subjects.” [Nonfics]
  1. “This movie takes the Sarah Polley approach to personal investigation, only instead of tangled family history, Darius Monroe explores how and why he robbed a bank 10 years before. Without ever excusing his actions, he tries to make sense for himself, the people he talks to and the audience how he, a model student, was set on a path towards becoming “the bad guy.” Almost everyone Monroe talks to appears at least slightly dazed at the nature of the project, but they talk to him nonetheless, and the result is a can’t-look-away dialectic.” [Nonfics]
  1. “The subject is LGBTI rights activists in Uganda and specifically the heroic openly gay movement leader David Kato. He was kind of Uganda’s Harvey Milk. And I’ve previously stated that it’s like that nation’s own Word is Out, Before Stonewall and After Stonewall all wrapped up in one. It’s an important film, of course, but it’s also very well made.” [Nonfics]
  1. “This could be the best depiction of transgender yet, or at least the most accessible and comprehensible look at a transgender person — who funny enough admits she’s not 100% sure herself of what it means. Kristin Beck is a Navy SEAL who recently came out and began the process of becoming a woman, and because of her position of national note and because that job is so defined by its macho reputation, her story is especially interesting — and maybe especially controversial — to many Americans. Beck, even though a poster person for transgender, mostly wants to be accepted as just a human being. Directors Mark Herzog and Sandrine Orabona depict her as a wonderful one at that.” [Nonfics]
  1. “This documentary chronicles a few years in the life of the 3D printer industry as two new startups attempt to compete with each other and the big companies. The filmmakers seem to be everywhere they need to be every step of the way and so deliver an exhaustive account of the rise of MakerBot Industries and Formlabs as well as printed gun advocate Cody Wilson. It’s a dense 90 minutes, during which I felt like I was present for every step of the story, as a great documentary should do.” [Nonfics]
  1. “If you don’t know much about this documentary, you’re better off going in cold, and that means not even Googling the title because I guarantee one of the top results is a spoiler. That’s if you want to have the optimal experience of the film’s arguably manipulative storytelling and therefore the optimal amount of tears from your eyes by the end. I have never met one person who has been able to or wanted to see the doc again, but it’s something that has to be seen not just for the emotional reminder that you’re a human being and that there are human beings out there capable of the worst acts but also for the legacy of the subjects. It’s one thing that the film’s existence led to important legislation in Canada, but it still deserves to be seen to understand why.” [Nonfics]

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.